Duluth’s Park System, 1856 – 1956

A lithographic postcard of the Lincoln Park Pavilion made between 1901 and 1915—though the photograph may have been taken in the 1890s. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Henry Cleveland Becomes Park Superintendent

November 1909 brought the first major change in park personnel. After having served the board in various capacities for over eighteen years, Henry Helm’s failing health forced him to retire as park superintendent. Henry Cleveland, a professional landscape architect who had worked for the city since 1900, became the new superintendent. Even with Cleveland in charge of day-to-day operations, the park system had grown so large that board members were having difficulty managing it, and in 1910 they decided to divide up the responsibilities, giving each board member three or four specific parks to oversee.

By 1911 the board once again ran short of funds. In early August, in the midst of many ambitious projects, they asked the city to sell $50,000 in bonds to raise money for acquiring and improving land for the park system. To save money, the secretary was also ordered to “lay off all the night keepers except Cascade and Lincoln Parks” starting on August 15, 1911.

Despite this setback, the board resumed work the next year, proposing to acquire land for the extension of several parks. Unfortunately, even Duluth’s beloved park system was subject to the whims of the people. Politics have always played a crucial role in fulfilling (and sometimes interfering with) the implementation of Duluth’s vision for a park system. In spite of the successes of the board and the overwhelming public support for the park system, politics brought an abrupt end to Duluth’s park board in 1913.

Duluth Park Board Eliminated

By 1910 urban areas throughout the country were expanding rapidly as immigrants poured into the United States and people from rural areas moved to cities to find jobs in growing industries. Local governments were widely viewed as corrupt, and reformers advocated for greater accountability at all levels of government. In Duluth, citizens agitated for enforcing the closing laws for saloons and cleaning up the city’s red light district, located in what is now the Canal Park Business District.

In the spirit of progressive reform, a new model for city government swept across the country. It reached Duluth in December 1912, when citizens voted to replace the ward and boss system of government, which it had been using since before the city regained its charter in 1887. Under this old system, the mayor held a great deal of power, and aldermen representing wards for one- and two-year terms served as the city’s Common Council. As a result of the 1913 charter change, a new commission form of government was adopted, which placed five commissioners in charge of five city departments: public affairs, public works, public safety, public utilities, and finance. The mayor served as commissioner of the public affairs department, which included the park system.

The Duluth News Tribune of December 4, 1912, reduced this astounding reorganization of city government to one simple sentence: “Under the provisions of the new charter, all the present city officers will be thrown out of office April 14.”

Perhaps most citizens did not realize that voting for the new charter would mean the elimination of all citizen boards and commissions, but when the charter change took effect, the Duluth Board of Park Commissioners was dissolved. The city would never again have a group of citizens with the dedication and power to create and maintain the park system. The minutes from the last meeting of the park board on April 7, 1913, ended with a sense of resignation: “Meeting then adjourned subject to provisions of the Commission Charter legislating all present officials out of office on April 14, 1913 at 12 o’clock noon. Finis.”

Duluth’s park board, under the leadership of Luther Mendenhall and Bernard Silberstein from 1891 to 1913, had created a system of parks that, in their words, expressed “the concept of the soul of the city.” They had worked hard to achieve a grand vision, which they described in their 1911 annual report: “The park system of a modern city is not only a series of grounds dedicated to park purposes, but a related and connected plan in which all the members are articulated into one unit. The park system of a modern city not only concerns itself that every neighborhood shall have its appropriate ornaments of lawns and shrubbery and glimpses of loveliness, but also that all these fragments shall compose parts of one harmonious whole. The park system of a modern city not only aims at beauty, but strives to express the concept of the soul of the city. The parks of a modern city bear witness that its people are members of one great family. They are the concrete expression of civic consciousness in its highest visible form.”

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